Frank Ocean And The Art Of The Incomplete ‘Masterpiece’

The first time I listened to Frank Ocean’s Blonde, I was just starting a six-hour drive from Chicago to Minneapolis. It was shortly after 6 a.m. Sunday, and I felt exhausted and weary, as one does at the start of a long, early-morning drive. But Blonde softened these feelings into a kind of sweet melancholy, where you welcome solitude and introspection as pleasurable states of being. Alone in my car, and held captive by the road, the music sounded luminous and knowing.

The second time I listened to Blonde, it was Sunday afternoon and I was at home. I went back to the parts of Blonde that wowed me: the snaky piano on “Pink + White”; the string section and weird muffled vocal in the back half of “Self Control”; the Beatles quote in “White Ferrari”; and all of “Seigfried,” which recalls OutKast’s “Prototype” and the quietest, most stoned sections of ’70s prog-rock records like Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. But now, Blonde seemed flatter, even half-baked. Ocean had some great parts, but they weren’t coalescing into great, complete songs. I had a similar issue with 2012’s Channel Orange, which I enjoyed talking and thinking about more than actually hearing it, because that’s when it stopped seeming like a masterpiece. In my head, Channel Orange was like a mid-’80s Prince record, a grand amalgam of eccentric psychedelia and bracing intimacy; when I put it on, however, Channel Orange presented a lot of very compelling pieces that didn’t quite fit together. Blonde sort of seemed like that, too.

Harmony Korine once said that great films are usually defined by just a handful of scenes that stand out in the audience’s memory. It’s only when you go back for another viewing that you notice that those scenes sometimes don’t cohere into a fully formed movie. Frank Ocean albums feel like that to me. He makes incomplete records that feel like classics from a distance.

Then again, maybe the problem was strictly related to setting: My environment for Blonde was now a drab living-room couch rather than a romantically desolate freeway. I wonder if all this time I’ve been approaching Ocean incorrectly. Instead of expecting pop music from Ocean, perhaps he should be regarded as an Eno-esque ambient artist.

In the liner notes for 1978’s Music for Airports, the first of his four pioneering “Ambient Music” albums, Brian Eno writes that while “extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these.” Eno’s intent with his ambient albums, he adds, was to “induce calm and a space to think.” Now, perhaps this is on my mind because Eno is listed among Blonde‘s long roll call of contributors. But Eno’s mission statement helps me to understand my feelings about Blonde and Ocean’s overall body of work, and why I tend to find his albums so fascinating and moving as well as frustrating and somewhat disappointing.

On one hand, it hardly seems accurate to say that Ocean’s music “induces calm,” at least not judging from the ecstatic responses to Blonde and its companion “visual album” Endless expressed on social media the past several days. To the contrary, Ocean is an artist with whom a great many people have invested heavy emotions. I’m more interested in the “space to think” part. For me, Ocean’s music doesn’t change how I already feel or overwhelm my setting, but rather intensifies the experience of being in those emotional and physical environments.

Ocean specializes in love songs that revisit bygone revelries and lament lingering regrets. (The already highly praised Blonde standout “Solo” somehow does both simultaneously.) But the reflection extends beyond just Ocean’s words — the very form of the music on Blonde, which is spare to the point of feeling fragmentary, requires the audience to fill in the empty spaces themselves with whatever data they have on hand. Ocean’s ghostly falsetto, the wispy guitar licks, the Quaalude fog of the synths — on Blonde, they all shape-shift to accommodate whatever environment you put them in, and in fact don’t fully reveal themselves until they mind-meld with those physical/mental/emotional landscapes. It’s like a collection of stems waiting for a emotional remix inside the mind of each listener.

This is fitting for a record that’s ultimately about the power of perception — how the self is shaped by how others see us, and why venturing even deeper into solipsism is both an escape or a trap. (Blonde might very well become the definitive artistic statement about how Facebook has warped personal relationships — outside of The Social Network, anyway.) But whether Blonde is an instant classic or a mess may depend literally on where you’re sitting. Like social media itself, Blonde is about staring in a mirror as much as communication.

This is not to say that Ocean — intentionally or not — doesn’t play a role in orchestrating the environments in which people receive his music. Less than a week before the release of Channel Orange, Ocean put out a statement via his Tumblr discussing his sexuality, which was posted in response to a music critic questioning the prevalence of male pronouns in the album’s most heartbroken songs. While Channel Orange was already considered Ocean’s potential breakout, Ocean’s apparent coming out put the album in a different league. Writers lined up to declare Channel Orange a landmark before they even heard it. And when Channel Orange finally was released, people were inclined to view the album’s gloominess and lack of catchy, fast-paced songs as indicators of a serious artistic sensibility, a courtesy typically reserved for legacy art-rock bands like Radiohead. (In contrast, Drake did not get “grower” credit from critics when he put out the murderously mid-tempo Views back in April, though Drake otherwise is doing just fine with fans.)

For Blonde, the album’s long gestation and botched release can’t be separated from the experience of hearing it. Whether you’re inclined to view Ocean as a genius tinkerer who protected his art until he deemed it ready for public consumption, or an undisciplined artist who simply ran out of time, there’s evidence to support both opinions on Blonde. In either case, Ocean’s strength derives from that old negotiation tactic of speaking softly and sparingly in order to make people lean in and pore intently over everything you say. The wait for Blonde has granted Blonde default profundity.

If it’s reductive to classify Blonde as an ambient album, then at the very least let’s stop slotting Ocean strictly as R&B (or, worse, “hipster R&B”). Rhythm is one half of the R&B equation, whereas Blonde does for drummers what the White Stripes did for bass players. I count just five out of 17 tracks with even a trace of a beat. (And that’s if you include “Futura Free,” which is generous.)

Blonde sounds more like a bootleg of a long-lost R&B classic, a grainy snapshot that hints at the “truth” of an artist’s mindset. (I suppose Endless is the bootleg of the bootleg.) People like bootlegs, in part, because of their suggestive greatness, the “what might have been” element that will always seem grander than tangible greatness. Whether by design or accident, Ocean does suggestive genius better than anyone right now — he gives you 75 percent of a great record, and listeners personalize it by mentally filling in the other 25 percent. Perhaps that will come off like a hollow compliment. But given how ubiquitous our most imperial pop stars have become, I appreciate how Ocean continues to exist at least partly as a myth, even as he’s putting out music in real time.